California Gov. Newsom expected to ease reopening rules for certain counties

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected early this week — possibly Monday — to announce he plans to make it easier for expanded economic activity in certain counties, Sonoma County officials said Sunday.

The move would clear the way for a quicker reopening of more business sectors, including area restaurants for in-person dining, in Sonoma County and other areas that don’t yet meet the state’s current stiff standards.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors on Thursday approved a proposed series of policy changes governing how businesses can operate under less stringent policies as a step toward reopening the local economy, the Business Journal reported Thursday. The Napa County public health officer said Napa is ready to move into early phase 2 of the governor’s four-phase plan for reopening California.

Such an announcement from the governor, predicted by two Sonoma County supervisors, would come in the wake of strong pushback for more than a week from elected county officials throughout California, where just 22 of 58 counties have gotten the green light from the state to reboot business and industry gutted during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m expecting to hear the governor make announcements that are going to accelerate opening in areas like Sonoma County, where we feel that our public health criteria exhibits all of the necessary controls for a managed opening,” said supervisor James Gore, also vice president of the California State Association of Counties.

The business resumptions permitted are expected to include in-person restaurant dining with social distancing and other public health protocols, shopping malls for curbside sales, among others.

The number of local COVID-19 cases and deaths, and other metrics drafted by state health officials meant to measure counties’ abilities to prevent the unchecked spread of the novel coronavirus, have kept Sonoma and other counties representing 95% of the state’s population from advancing through the governor’s four-part state reopening plan.

The state guidelines thus far allow for one virus case per 10,000 residents and no deaths in the past two weeks. They also prescribe coronavirus testing, contact tracing and local hospital surge capacities for counties.

That could change this week, Gore said, referring to the anticipation of Newsom relaxing some of those tough-to-achieve benchmarks and placing more emphasis on some other markers unclear Sunday night.

Such a gubernatorial shift would be welcome news for Sonoma County supervisors, still poised to approve Monday morning a blueprint for reopening portions of the shuttered local economy by seeking a waiver from current state case and testing targets the county hasn’t attained.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s top public health official, acknowledged Friday that Sonoma County does not meet the state’s stringent criteria for a faster-track business sector resumption, and it’s unlikely the state would grant a request from the county to waive some of the requirements.

Nonetheless, at the supervisors’ request Mase was working with county officials on such a waiver.

As that work has progressed behind the scenes, Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin said Sunday that discussions have cropped up about state action from the governor.

“I heard from (Department of Health Services) Director (Barbie) Robinson that the governor may be revising his criteria,” said Gorin, the chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors. “I don’t know what that’s going to look like, but it’s possible that we could, under the revised guidelines, open up a little more broadly.”

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Gorin said she doesn’t think county attorneys and health officials, including Mase, the county’s health officer, have wasted time to draft plans for a quicker reopening and submit the proposal for state review because it has started a “good community conversation.”

“I think that’s a very healthy discussion for this county to have,” Gorin said, referring to the back-and-forth between those who would reopen the county quickly and those who prefer a more cautious pace amid a deadly pandemic that’s still not fully understood yet has killed 89,500 people in the United States and caused widespread economic carnage, including thousands if job losses in Sonoma County.

Ironically, the apparent retreat coming from the governor comes after a week when the number of confirmed new cases of COVID-19 in Sonoma County have spiked by 78 to 387 as of Sunday night and county officials reported May 11 a fourth person had died from the infectious disease.

The other three deaths occurred May 2, April 10 and March 20. Since the March 2 announcement the first local resident was diagnosed with the highly contagious pathogen, there are 179 active cases and 204 people have recovered as of Sunday night. And 14,564 residents among the county’s population of about 500,000 have been tested so far.

Gorin said would prefer a cautious restart of business and public life.

“Even if we have that ability (to reopen), I hope we take a more cautious approach,” she said. “Look at businesses that are truly low-risk, and open up slowly.”

Gorin and her fellow supervisors on Tuesday directed Mase and County Attorney Bruce Goldstein to draft a waiver from the governor’s stricter reopening standards, representing the county’s effort to join the nearly two dozen counties that have been permitted to open great portions of their business communities.

The California Department of Public Health has signed off on 22 county applications, known as “variance attestation” forms, allowing mostly rural counties ranging from Humboldt and Del Norte in the north to Inyo County in Southern California.

State health officials confirmed late last week that Merced and San Luis Obispo counties filed similar forms, but the counties did not meet state goals and the state rejected the applications.

Officials did not have an updated list of rejected counties Sunday evening.

Lawyers and health officials in Sonoma County have prepared their own variance request, which shows the county has too many cases — and too many deaths — to qualify for expanded economic activity.

“This is really seen more as a plan that we’re putting forward to get the state’s buy-in as we get ready, now or in the future, for opening,” Mase said during a media call Friday.

The Sonoma County request, a draft of which is available online as part of the agenda packet for the Board of Supervisors’ special meeting Monday, attempts to redefine state metrics, suggesting a focus on community spread instead of overall cases.

“Currently, the prevalence of COVID-19 cases due to community transmission in Sonoma County appears to be low enough to be swiftly contained by an epidemiological response,” according to the county’s draft.

That argument is key to why county leaders have for more than a week insinuated that the statewide reopening guidelines would change following an initial effort by the governor to appease rural counties, many of which have yet to tally a single COVID-19 case, let alone suffer a death from the disease.

“If the governor is revising his criteria, he has heard loudly from many counties that the criteria is a little too stiff and needs some revision,” Gorin said. “He is, I’m sure, receiving that information broadly.”

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